Orbanism at its limits? Hungary’s referendum exposes the cracks


Hungaryorban_full_380Around 98 per cent of Hungarian voters who participated in last weekend’s referendum on refugees’ resettlement rejected the proposed EU quotas, but turnout fell below the 50 per cent threshold required for the result to be valid.

This could (stress on could) be a turning point in Viktor Orbán’s luck, the slowing of backsliding of democracy in this battered country, once a beacon of hope for democratic transition in Central Europe, according to András Simonyi, Managing Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS Johns Hopkins University.

The result constitutes one of the first cracks in Hungary’s semi-authoritarian regime, whose powerful get-out-the-vote machinery failed to produce the required level of support, argues Abel Bojar an LSE Fellow in Political Economy of Europe at the LSE’s European Institute. He argues that Viktor Orban’s success has been built on four distinct types of control, and that his control over at least one of these areas – the political arena – may now be slipping away:

  • Control over resources: The first form of control is financial. Orban’s long-standing goal, while in opposition, was to create and entrench a group of friendly business allies that he could bank on for political survival. Upon coming to power in 2010, he wasted little time in channelling state resources to this designated group through various means, including selective legislation, EU funds via public procurement, and preferential credit from state-owned banks. When he sensed that someone grew too powerful in this privileged circle, he did not hesitate to turn the state apparatus against them, making it clear that direct political influence (and most importantly, political dissent) was beyond their reach.
  • Control over ideas: One of the most important beneficiaries of Orban’s largesse – through government ads and campaign spending for instance – has been his friendly media empire concentrated in the hands of some of his closest allies. This leads to the regime’s second form of control: the control over ideas. Always careful to bring his policies under a grand political narrative – whether it is fighting a “war of economic independence” against Brussels or protecting the EU’s “Christian borders” – this media empire has allowed his narrative to remain unchallenged. Dissenting voices have been given little or no coverage, opposition media outlets have been financially starved and a newly established Media Council has been tasked with enforcing the principle that no-one should step beyond a red line of acceptable criticism….
  • Control over institutions: The 2010 electoral landslide was soon followed by a capture of nominally independent institutions of the state, leading to the third form of control: the control over institutions. The Constitutional Court, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, The Electoral Commission and other institutions were staffed with party loyalists and their proxies, reducing the formerly (more or less) independent institutions of the state to instruments of party control. ….
  • Control over the political arena: Ultimately, however, what matters most for the regime’s stability is political control. Orban’s strategy for dominating the party-political arena comes down to three D’s: divide, diffuse and duplicate:
    • First, by crafting the political agenda in a way that fragments its left-wing opposition (by keeping the much reviled former Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, in the forefront of political debate, for instance), he has managed to turn natural allies into bitter opponents. A disciplined left-liberal resistance to his regime has proven difficult to organise, let alone maintain, as a result.
    • Second, voices of dissent coming from civil society – the spontaneous mass protest against a proposed Internet tax in 2014 being a prominent example – have been successfully diffused by tactical retreats, smear tactics and delegitimisation.
    • Thirdly, the regime has confronted its rising threat on the right from the ultra-nationalist Jobbik party by duplicating the latter’s policy content: social conservatism at home and nationalism and Euroscepticism abroad.


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